Do celebrity chefs still have time to cook?
Good food is big business, and no one knows that better than celebrity chefs who appear on television and sell their flavorful images. Amid the 53 express restaurants nationwide – and the high-end restaurants in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and elsewhere – Wolfgang Puck has a veritable empire of food, including soups, signature appliances, two lines of pots and pans, and cafs.But he still loves to cook, and it’s tough to find the time. “Not enough, for sure,” Puck said. “Cooking is my favorite part.”Right now, though, Puck said he was excited to be heading here for the Food & Wine Classic. “I always love to go to Aspen,” he said. “It’s fun because it’s such a small town. When I do the cooking demonstrations people are really into it. It’s really exciting to go to a place where everyone loves food and wine.”Puck’s flagship, Spago, in Beverly Hills, is one of Los Angeles’ finest, with menus that vary with what fresh food is available.”You go with the seasons,” Puck said. “It’s ever-changing. Peaches are coming in. We have white asparagus. I love when we have things for a while, and then they’re gone. We’re getting wild mushrooms, and corn is coming in season. It’s great to always have something new. We don’t have tomato salad on the menu until we get them from our farmer.”Puck said he believes fully in supporting local farmers. Imported fruits and vegetables just don’t cut it. “All the produce we get every day,” he said. “We print [what’s available] at 11 o’clock and insert it in the menu. We are really geared to flexibility.”Puck said cooking remains his central passion, but philanthropy and helping others is what really gets him talking. “Chefs are very generous in giving their time to charities,” said Puck, who estimated he spends 30 days a year donating his time to various causes. “We are very much involved in our communities. Almost everywhere it’s the same. The cooking profession is a profession of nurturing, to make people happy and make them feel better. If someone doesn’t have anything, then we have to give them something.”Often he will donate a dinner he cooks for 50 people. The dinners can generate more than a quarter of a million dollars for charity, depending on the bidding. “I’m doing too many,” said Puck, who estimated that his activities have generated more than $15 million for charity in the last 20 years.Beyond the charity work, Puck is also going to be filming a new television show aimed at children next year. To some extent, the same philanthropist drive is behind the new show. “Hopefully, we can teach them more about nutrition,” Puck said. “It’s just a bite away. It’s exciting to teach them about food, where food comes from, the history of food and what is good for them.”
As a culinary wizard who appears on “Iron Chef America” and hosts FoodTV shows, Mario Batali doesn’t always have time for a quiet night at home to cook some pasta and pizza. “Whenever I’m in the restaurants I can cook all I like,” Batali said. “I don’t have the responsibility to be there at 10 a.m. to prep the station. I can make a few things special for special friends.”
Cooking, he said, is still his passion.”I’m a simple fool,” he said. “It’s my favorite thing besides hanging out with my kids.”
And often he can do both.”They love to cook,” Batali said. “They love to eat, and they love to think about it.”Today, though, Batali is in Aspen with his family to enjoy the summertime. “It’s the announcement of summer,” Batali said by phone. “We go fishing, I’ll play some golf, we do the schmoozing.”When he’s in New York, Batali can be found at Babbo, one of the best-known restaurants in the city.”When I’m in town I’m in the restaurants all day every day,” he said. “Seven days a week. It’s across from my house. I figure out who needs to be seen. I solve problems, check quality control.”Babbo, however, is hardly all about cooking. Batali says 80 percent of his everyday job involves the all-important schmoozing.
“Maybe I have something I can bring out,” he said. “Just have extra human touch, and that adds value to a good restaurant.”He also plays around with menus and new foods. As a celebrity chef in New York City, Batali said, people will bring boxes of various types of food to the back door in the hope that he will use it and others will buy it. “I’m always on the lookout,” he said. “People will come in with one box of something. If I buy it they’ll tell the next guy. I buy a lot of things because it comes to my doorstep.”Batali, just like Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse and other famous chefs, also spends a good deal of his time raising funds for various charities.Batali said he focuses on children’s health and hunger relief. At a recent auction for a food bank in New York, a dinner for 10 by Batali went for $50,000. “It’s a total blast,” he said. “I show up and I make the dinner. I’m going to definitely be there. They really want to meet you.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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